Shubh Divali

Just a quick shout to say:

Shubh Divali!


Om Srim Mahalakshmiyai Svaha

Om Srim Brzee


May Light always overcome Darkness!

May Knowledge forever eradicate Ignorance!

May Bliss prevail in all beings!

May All Beings come to know Absolute Truth!

May we all return to the One True and Infinite God!

Blessings of Love, Peace & Light!




Kriya Yoga (by Paramhansa Yogananda)

My guru, Sri Yukteswar, liked a chant that I have translated, two lines from which go, “Pranayama be thy religion. Pranayama will give thee salvation.”

“Pranayama means control of the energy in the body, and its direction upward through the spine to the brain and to the Christ center between the eyebrows. This alone is the pathway of awakening. It isn’t a matter of dogma or belief. It is simply the way we were all made by God.

“The consciousness enters the body by way of the brain and the spine. When the sperm and ovum unite to create the physical body, they do so at what becomes the medulla oblongata, at the base of the brain.

“From this medulla, the life force moves out into the brain, down the spine and into the nervous system, then on to the muscles, etc., creating the body.

“The way out of the body, then, is to reverse this process. The difficulty in doing so lies in the fact that the life force is already conditioned by birth to continue its outward direction – through the senses and onward to the environment as it is perceived through the senses. Thus, we think to possess the world and to enjoy it through the body.

“We can never experience anything outside ourselves, however, except vicariously, as the senses report their impressions to the brain. We may try to expand our understanding of the world by study, or our enjoyment of it through sense pleasures. The fact remains, we can never know anything except through the medium of the senses, so long as the life force remains trapped in the body.

“There is a way out, however. It is for the life-force to merge with the cosmic energy; for the consciousness to merge in the infinite consciousness.

“The way to accomplish this end is to withdraw the life force from the senses, and center it in the spine; to direct it upward through the spine to the brain, and thence out through the Christ center between the eyebrows.

“The ego is centered in the medulla oblongata. This is the negative pole of self-consciousness. The positive pole is situated at the Christ center. Concentration at this center – in the spiritual eye, the seat of spiritual vision – projects the consciousness beyond the ego into Infinity.

“The spine is the highway to the Infinite. Your own body is the temple of God. It is within your own self that God must be realized. Whatever places of pilgrimage you visit outwardly, and whatever outward rituals you perform, the ultimate ‘pilgrimage’ must be within. And the ultimate religious rite must be the offering of your life-force on the altar of inner God-communion.

“That was why Jesus said, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ ‘He spake,’ the Bible adds, ‘of the temple of his body.’ (John 2:19,21) “This is the path of Kriya Yoga.”

– Pramhansa Yogananda

Kali: the Most Powerful Cosmic Female

Kali, the embodiment of three-aspected cosmic act, which reveals in creation, preservation and annihilation, is the most mysterious divinity of Indian religious order, Vaishnava, Shaiva, Buddhist, Jain or any. She assures ‘abhaya’ – fearlessness, by her one hand and ‘varada’ – benevolence, by the other, both defining in perpetuity the ultimate disposition of her mind, but in contrast, the feeling that the goddess inspires by her appearance, plundering death with the naked sword carried in one of her other hands and feeding on blood gushing from the bodies of her kills, is of awe and terror. Instruments of destruction are her means of preservation, and from across the cremation ground, lit by burning pyres and echoing with shrieks of moaning jackals and goblins, and from over dismembered dead bodies – her chosen abode, routes her passage to life. The most sacred, Kali shares her habitation with vile wicked flesh-eating ‘pishachas’ – monsters, and rides a dead body. She is enamoured with Shiva but unites with Shiva’s ‘shava’ – the passive, enactive dead body, herself being its active agent. She delights in destruction and laughs but only to shake with terror all four directions, and the earth and the sky. A woman, Kali seeks to adorn herself but her ornaments are a garland or necklace of severed human heads, girdle of severed human arms, ear-rings of infants’ corpses, bracelets of snakes – all loathsome and horrible-looking. Such fusion of contradictions is the essence of Kali’s being, a mysticism which no other divinity is endowed with. Vashishtha Ganapati Muni has rightly said of her:

“All here is a mystery of contraries,
Darkness, a magic of self-hidden light,
Suffering, some secret rapture’s tragic mask,
And death, an instrument of perpetual life.”

Fusion of contraries – not just as two co-existents but as two essential aspects of the same, is what defines Kali, as also the cosmos which she manifests. As from the womb – darker than the ocean’s deepest recesses where even a ray of light does not reach, emerges life, so from the darkness is born the luminous light, and deeper the darkness, more lustrous the light. A realisation in contrast to suffering, delight is suffering’s glowing face – her child born by contrast. The tree is born when the seed explodes and its form is destroyed, that is, the life is death’s re-birth, and form, all its beauty and vigour, the deformation incarnate. This inter-related unity of contraries defines both, cosmos and Kali. The dark-hued Kali, who represents in her being darkness, suffering, death, deformation and ugly, is the most potent source of life, light, happiness and beauty – the positive aspect of the creation. She destroys to re-create, inflicts suffering so that the delight better reveals, and in her fearful form one has the means of overcoming all fears, not by escaping but by befriending them.

Light’s invocation is common to all religious orders and all divinities; in Kali’s invocation, the devotee stands face to face with darkness which aggregates death, destruction, suffering, fear and all negative aspects of the universe. Not its prey but a valiant warrior, the devotee seeks to overcome darkness and uncover all that it conceals – light, life, delight, even liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Kali assists him in his battle. She allows her devotee to win her grace and command thereby the total cosmic darkness – accessible or inaccessible, known or unknown, or unknowable, that she condenses into her being. Otherwise than thus condensed, the devotee could not apprehend and command its cosmic enormity. Kali is Tantrikas’ supreme deity, for in her they discover the instrument which enables them command diverse cosmic forces in one stroke. Kali’s ages-long popularity among ignorant primitive tribes is inspired, perhaps, by her power to reveal light out of darkness, something that they have within and without and in great abundance. Other way also, Kali assures light in perpetuity. Cyclically, a journey that takes off from the light terminates into darkness but that which takes off from the darkness is bound to land into the valleys of endless light.

Invoking and befriending the awful – the negative aspect of the creation, and warding off thereby evils and their influence, is a primitive cult still prevalent in world’s several ethnic groups and even classical traditions such as Buddhism that has a number of Kali-like awe-inspiring deities,

or Athenian tradition of Nemeses, the wrathful maidens inflicting retribution for a wrong and effecting purgation by way of wreaking ill-fate. Not with such cosmic width as has Kali, or for the attainment of such wide objectives as commanding cosmic elements, motifs like the Chinese dragon, memento mori, a skeleton form considered very auspicious by certain sections of Russian society, Islamic world’s semurga, grotesque and dreaded animal forms, ghost-masks… venerated world-over, all reveal man’s endeavour to befriend, or mitigate the influence of some or the other wrathful aspect of nature – the manifest cosmos.


Not merely her form, mysticism enshrouds Kali’s origin also. Among lines on which her origin has been traced three are more significant, though she transcends even those. She is sometimes seen as a transformation, or a form developed out of some of the Vedic deities alluded to in Brahmins and Upanishadas, mainly Ratridevi, the goddess of dark night, also named Maha-ratri, the Transcendental Night, and Nirtti, the cosmic dancer. Kali’s darker aspect is claimed to have developed out of Ratridevi’s darkness, and her dance, which she performed to destroy, to have its origin in the cosmic dance of Nirtti who too trampled over whatever fell under her feet. Mundaka Upanishada talks of seven tongues of Agni, the Fire-god, one of them operating in cremation ground and devouring the dead. Over-emphasising the factum of association of Kali and this tongue of Agni with cremation ground a few scholars have sought in Agni’s tongue the origin of Kali’s form.

Whatever variations in their versions, the Puranas perceive Kali as an aspect of Devi – Goddess, a divinity now almost completely merged with Durga. However, considering Kali’s status as a goddess within her own right, as well as her wide-spread worship-cult prevalent amongst various tribes and ethnic groups scattered far and wide in remote rural areas Kali seems to be an indigenous, and perhaps, pre-Vedic divinity. As suggests the term Kali, she appears to be the feminine aspect of Kala – Time, that being invincible, immeasurable and endless has been venerated as Mahakala – the Transcendental Time, represented in Indian metaphysical and religious tradition by Shiva. In Hindu religious terminology Mahakala is Shiva’s just another name. Like Shiva, some Indus terracotta icons seem to represent a ferocious female divinity that might be Kali or a form preceding her, and in all probabilities, Shiva’s feminine counterpart. Buddhism, a thought that opposed Vedic perception in most matters, inducted into its pantheon Mahakala and a ferocious female divinity in her various manifest forms, as Mahakala’s feminine counterpart. Obviously, Buddhism must have inducted her from a source other than the Vedic, as the Vedic it vehemently opposed. Invoked with great fervour on many occasions in the Mahabharata, more especially in Bhishma-Parva, just before Lord Krishna delivers his Gita sermon, Kali seems to be a well established divinity during the Epic days, that is, centuries before the Puranic era began. Though invoked as ‘Arya’, a term denotative of great reverence, Arjuna lauds her as tenebrous maiden garlanded with skulls, tawny, bronze-dark… and with epithets such as Mahakali, Bhadrakali, Chandi, Kapali …, the features yet relevant in Kali’s imagery. A number of literary texts : Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava, Subandhu’s Vasavadatta, Banabhatta’s Kadambari, Bhavabhuti’s Malitimadhava, Somadeva’s Yashatilaka…, of the period from 2nd to 9th century, also allude to Kali, a fact denotative of her great popularity in realms other than religion. This Kali essentially transcends Vedic Ratridevi, Maharatri, Nritti or one of Agni’s seven tongues or a divine form grown out of any of them.

However, Kali cannot be attributed this or that mode of origin. Even if a goddess of indigenous origin and one of primitive tribes, she has far greater width and operativeness than the non-operative boon-giving primitive deities usually had. Unless her absolute ‘at homeness’ in the traditional Hindu line and her status in it are sacrificed she can not be treated as a mere tribal deity with indigenous origin. Alike, the tradition can not owe her as absolutely her own creation unless her status of being a goddess in her own right is compromised and she is reduced to what she is not. Whatever her origin, perhaps indigenous, Kali emerges in the tradition as its own with far greater thrust and reverence than it attributed to others. Not a mere epithet or aspect of another goddess, Kali has been conceived as the Shakti – Power of Kala – Time. Like Kala she pervades all things, manifest or unmanifest. Puranas perceive Kali as Durga’s personified wrath – her embodied fury, but in every case she is her real Shakti. Even her own fury, Durga summons Kali to accomplish what she herself fails to do. After Durga separates Kali from her being and Kali emerges with a form of her own – an independent being, she reigns supreme in entire Hindu pantheon as regards the power to destroy and defeat enemies.

Not merely Durga’s Shakti, Kali has been conceived also as Lord Shiva’s dynamic aspect. In a delightful equation, ‘a’, the main component of ‘Shava’ and ‘Kala’, negates what ‘i’, the main component of ‘Shiva’ and ‘Kali’, accomplishes. Shava is the lifeless body, whatever is left of the manifest universe when the Power of Time takes it under its control, and Kala is what reveals only in the manifest aspect of the universe, and thus, both are ‘timed’. When ‘i’, symbolic of the feminine energy which manifests as Kali, unites into their beings transforming Shava into Shiva and Kala into Kali, both emerge as ‘timeless’. In Shiva this universe is contained, and hence, in him, the transition from the ‘timed’ to the ‘timeless’ takes place. Kali, being the Power of Time, does not undergo this transition.


Allusions to Kali occur in some early Puranas too, it is, however, the 5th-6th century Devi-Mahatmya, a part of the Markandeya Purana, which comes out with her more elaborate vision in regard to her origin, appearance, personality, power and exploits.

The Devi-Mahatmya comprises independent ‘Dhyana’ on Mahakali and uses Kali’s names, such as Bhadrakali, Kalika, Chandika… as epithets of Devi in its different parts; these are, however, two episodes that give to her fuller exposure in regard to her origin, role and other things. One of them relates to Chanda and Munda, the ferocious demons she kills, and other, to Rakta-bija.

Defeated and thrown out of Devaloka – their abode, by demons Shumbha and Nishumbha, erstwhile generals of Mahisha, gods lauded Devi and invoked her to come to their rescue and free their abode from the notorious demons. Devi, bathing in river Ganga as Parvati, heard gods’ laudation and asked herself who they were lauding, and when she so questioned, from her own being sprang up a female form – a bewitching beauty that had unique lustre, teemed in great youthfulness, and was richly bejeweled and brilliantly costumed. She replied that it was her they lauded. She then proceeded to the region which demons of Shumbha’s army swarmed and sat under a tree all alone. Hearing of her from a messenger Shumbha intensely desired to marry her and sent to her his proposal. However, the divine maiden sent back his messenger with words that she would marry only such one who defeated her in a battle. Thinking that a young maiden with no arms in hands was hardly a challenge, Shumbha sent a small contingent to fight and capture her. The Goddess defeated and destroyed it and one after the other all contingents that followed. Finally, with a huge army of demons under the command of their generals Chanda and Munda Shumbha and Nishumbha themselves came to fight the Goddess. Seeing Chanda and Munda advancing towards her the Goddess blazed with fury. As the Devi-Mahatmya has it:

“From the knitted brows of her forehead’s surface
immediately came forth Kali,
with her dreadful face, carrying sword and noose,
she carried a strange skull-topped staff,
and wore a garland of human heads,
she was shrouded in a tiger skin, and looked utterly gruesome
with her emaciated skin,
her widely gaping mouth, terrifying with its lolling tongue,
with sunken, reddened eyes
and a mouth that filled the directions with roars.”

The Goddess asked Kali to destroy demons’ army, Chanda and Munda in particular, on which Kali inflicted great destruction all around, danced on the corpses, killed Chanda and Munda and as trophies of war brought to the Goddess their severed heads. The Goddess attributed to Kali the epithet of Chamunda – destroyer of Chanda and Munda. Deaths of Chanda and Munda greatly infuriated Shumbha and Nishumbha and with all demons at their command, which included the demon Rakta-bija and others of his clan, they attacked the Goddess and surrounded her along Kali from all sides. To face their massive number the Goddess summoned Sapta-Matrikas – Seven Mothers, Brahmani, Maheshwari, Kumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Narsimhi and Aindri, the powers of all major gods, Brahma, Shiva, Skanda, Vishnu and Indra.

A fierce battle ensued but what upset the Goddess most was the multiplication of Rakta-bija who had a boon to the effect that a new Rakta-bija demon would rise from wherever a drop of his blood fell. Finally, the Goddess called Kali to drink the blood of Rakta-bija before it fell on the earth. With a gaped mouth devouring hosts of demons and a tongue extended into all directions and moving faster than did the demon Kali consumed every drop of blood oozing from the wounds of Rakta-bija.

Not Devi-Mahatmya alone, almost all Puranas, Agni and Garuda in particular, venerate Kali as the goddess who assures success in war and eliminates enemies.

Skanda Purana links Kali’s origin to Parvati. Initially Parvati had dark complexion for which Shiva used to tease her every now and then. One day on being addressed twice as Kali – black-complexioned, Parvati deserted Shiva. She said that she would not return unless she got rid of her black complexion. After Parvati left, Shiva felt very lonely. Taking advantage of her absence and Shiva’s loneliness a demon named Adi, who was looking for an opportunity to kill Shiva and avenge his father’s death, disguised as Parvati and managed to enter into Shiva’s chamber. It took some time but Shiva identified the demon, and soon killed him. Meanwhile by rigorous penance and with Brahma’s help Parvati was able to cast off her outer black sheath and from inside emerged her golden form. Now Gauri – golden-hued, she came back to Shiva. Gods, looking for a female form to kill Mahisha, transformed with their lustre this black sheath of Parvati into Kali and after she had accomplished gods’ errand Parvati banished her to the region beyond Vindhya Mountain. Here she became known as Katyayani.

The Linga Purana contains yet another episode responsible for Kali’s origin. A demon named Daruka had a boon that no other than a woman would kill him. In view of reports of his atrocities reaching him, Shiva one day asked Parvati to kill him. Thereupon Parvati entered into the body of Shiva and from the poison contained in his throat transformed herself and re-appeared as Kali. She gathered an army of flesh-eating Pishachas and with their help destroyed Daruka. The Skanda Purana further expands the legend. Kali did not stop destruction even after killing Daruka. Intoxicated by consuming poison and demon’s blood Kali, uncontrollable as she was, went crazy and by her destructive activities endangered cosmic equilibrium. Finally, Shiva transformed himself as one of Kali’s own forms and sucked from Kali’s breasts all poison after which she became quiet.

Though in a different context, an identical tradition prevails in South India. After defeating Shumbha and Nishumbha Kali retired to a forest with her retinue of fierce companions and began terrorizing surroundings and its inhabitants. A Shiva’s devotee went to him with petition to get the forest free of Kali’s terror. When Kali refused to oblige Shiva claiming that it was her domain, Shiva asked her to compete him in dance to which Kali agreed, though unable, or perhaps unwilling, to reach Shiva’s energy level she got defeated and left.

Though insignificantly, Kali’s origin has been linked also with Sati, Shiva’s first consort, and Sita, consort of Lord Rama. Insulted by her father Daksha the infuriated Sati rubbed her nose in anger and there appeared Kali. After conquering Ravana Rama was returning to Ayodhya. On his way, it is said, he confronted a monster that so much terrified Rama that in fear his blood froze. Thereupon Sita transformed herself as Kali and defeated it.


Numerous are Kali’s manifestations; however, her external appearance, both in texts as well as art, basic nature and overall personality do not vary much. In her usual form the black-hued Kali is a terrible awe-inspiring divinity frightening all by her appearance. Except that some of her body parts are covered by her ornaments, she is invariably naked. An emaciated figure with long disheveled hair and gruesome face, Kali has been conceived with any number of arms from two to eighteen, and sometimes even twenty or more, though her more usual form being four-armed. The four arms are interpreted as symbolising her ability to operate into and command all four directions, that is, the cosmos in aggregate. She has long sharp fangs, alike long ugly nails, a fire-emitting third eye on her forehead, a lolling tongue and blood-smeared mouth, which, when expanded, not only swallows hordes of demons but its lower part extends to ocean’s depth and upper, beyond the sky. When required to lick blood falling from a fleeing demon’s body she extends her tongue to any length and turns it faster than the wind in whichever direction the blood falls.

In her more usual iconography Kali carries in one of her four hands an unsheathed sword – her instrument to overcome enemies and command evils, in another, a severed demon head, and other two are held in postures denotative of abhaya and varada – fearlessness and benevolence. Sometimes, the severed head is replaced with a skull-bowl filled with blood.

Abhaya is the essence of Kali’s entire being. One of the permanent dispositions of her mind, ‘abhaya’ is her assurance against all fears which, embodied in her, are rendered inoperative or to operate only as commanded. Denotative of her boundless power to destroy, Kali’s frightening aspect is her power to dispel evil and wicked, and in this the freedom from fear is re-assured. Kali’s usual place is a battlefield where all around lay scattered pools of blood, headless torsos, severed heads, arms and other body-parts. When not in battlefield, Kali roams around cremation ground where reigns death’s silence except when yelling winds, groans of wailing jackals or sound of fluttering wings of vultures tearing corpses lying around break it. Its abyssal darkness, which flames of pyres occasionally lit, is what suits Kali most. In battlefield or otherwise, she walks on foot. Except rarely when she borrows or forcibly takes Durga’s lion or Shiva’s Nandi, Kali does not use a mount, an animal or whatever, either to ride or to assist her in her battle. She dances to destroy and under her dancing feet lay the corpse of destruction. Standing or seated, she has under her a sprawling ithyphallic corpse, not lotuses, the favourite seat of most other deities. She stands upon nonexistence – the corpse of the ruined universe, but which nonetheless contains the seed of new birth.

In her imagery while the corpse represents non-existence or ruined universe, Kali’s figure engaged in union either with Shiva or his Shava symbolise continuum of creative process. The manifest universe is what veils Time but when Kali, the Power of Time, has destroyed the manifest universe, that veil is lifted and Time, and correspondingly Kali, the Power of Time, is rendered naked, a phenomenon that Kali’s naked form denotes.

By nature, Kali is always hungry and never sated. She laughs so loud that all three worlds shake with terror. She dances madly not merely trampling upon corpses but also on the live cosmos reducing it to non-existence. She crushes, breaks, tramples upon and burns her enemies or those of her devotees. Kali is not only a deity of independent nature but is also indomitable, or rather all dominating. She is Shiva-like powerful, unconventional and more at home when dwelling on society’s margins. Aspects of nobility or elite life-mode are not her style of life. She is Shiva’s consort or companion but not Parvati-like meek and humble. Herself wild and destructive, she incites Shiva to resort to wild, dangerous and destructive behaviour threatening stability of cosmos. Every moment a warrior, Kali does not miss any opportunity of war; She is one of Shiva’s warriors in his battle against Tripura.


Far more than in texts, a huge body of Kali’s mythology has evolved in Kali-related tradition. Apart that a rough-cut crude image of Kali painted in black, and the tongue, in blood-red, occupies a corner in every hamlet, even with a dozen hutments, it also abounds in tales of her mysterious powers, both inflicting damage and protecting from harm. More significant is her presence in Indian art where she underlines many important Hindu themes. What sometimes occur in texts as mere epithets of Kali are in Indian arts her well established forms. Mahakali, Bhadrakali, Dakshina Kali, Guhyakali, Shmashana Kali, Bhairavi, Tripura-Bhairavi, Chamunda… are some of her more popular forms in texts as well as art.

In her Mahakali form, an equivalent to Mahakala, the all-powerful aspect of Shiva, who devours time and effects dissolution, Kali is Mahakala’s feminine transform. In her form as Mahakali she presides over the Great Dissolution which Shiva in the form of Shava symbolises. In art, Kali invariably enshrines it. Initially, as Mahakali her role was confined to demon-slaying. In Puranas, while still representing dissolution, destruction, death and decay, she more emphatically personified in her being horror, awe and loathsomeness. She still slew demons but mostly when summoned and in subordination. In her form as Chamunda – the slayer of Chanda and Munda, she was most ferocious multi-armed demon-killer. She carried in her hands most deadly weapons and in her eyes a lustre that burnt her enemies.

As Shmashana Kali, a form more popular in Tantrism, Kali haunts cremation ground amidst burning pyres – the interim domain in between this and the next world and where death and dissolution reign.

As Tripura-Bhairavi, consort of death, Kali is conceived with a form wearing a large necklace of human bodies, a shorter one of skulls, a girdle of severed hands, and ear-rings of the corpses of infants. Around her lie a greater number of corpses and feed on them wily jackals and vile vultures. Sometimes in loincloth, Tripura-Bhairavi is more often covered in elephant skin and carries other Shaivite attributes.

Elaborately jeweled Dakshina Kali also wears a long necklace of severed heads, a girdle of unusually small severed arms and a couple of corpses as ear-rings, but instead of being gruesome her figure comprises smooth perfectly proportioned fully exposed youthful limbs. She stands on the body of a supine ithyphallic Shiva stretched out on an already burning pyre in cremation ground where scavenging birds hover and jackals roam. Dakshina Kali carries in one of her hands a sword, in another, a human head, and other two are held in abhaya and varada. Bhadra Kali, the auspicious one, Kali’s majestic, benign, benevolent and mild form, has been conceived with arms varying in number usually two to four. She often carries two bowls, one for wine and other for blood. Kali’s form that gods, even Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, worship is invariably her Bhadra Kali form. The delightful one, she joyously drinks, dances and sings.

Guhyakali, literally meaning ‘Secret Kali’, is Kali’s esoteric aspect, which only those well versed in the Kali tradition know.

In the related ‘Dhyana’ – the form that reveals when meditating on her, snakes constitute a significant part of her attire and adornment. Her necklace, sacred thread, girdle, all are made of serpents, and the thousand hooded serpent Ananta makes her umbrella. Apart, her form assimilates other Shaivite attributes to include crescent on her forehead. In visual representation, instead of snakes’ pre-eminence, Guhyakali is identified by the Kali-yantra invariably represented along with.


Kali has quite significant place in Yoga and Tantra, though in Yoga her status is not that high as in Tantra. Kundalini-sadhana, kindling of Kundalini – dormant energy seen as black serpent that lies coiled and asleep in the inner body, is the prevalent practice in both but it is the very basis of Yoga. The Yoga perceives Kali as Kundalini Shakti. Kali is thus the basis of Yoga, though beyond such equation it does not involve Kali any further. Tantra seeks its accomplishment in Ten Mahavidyas – the Great Wisdoms, Kali, being the foremost among them, is the most significant deity of Tantra.

Kali’s disruptive behaviour, unkempt appearance, confronting activities and involvement with death and defilement are what better suit Tantra, especially the Vamachara Tantrism. Kali’s form that contains in an unclean or even unholy body-frame the highest spiritual sanctity helps Tantrika to overcome the conventional notion of clean and unclean, sacred and profane and other dualistic concepts that lead to incorrect nature of reality. Yogini-Tantra, Kamakhya Tantra and Nirvana-Tantra venerate Kali as the supreme divinity and Nirvana-Tantra perceives Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as arising from Kali as arise bubbles from the sea.

To the Tantrika, Kali’s black is symbolic of disintegration; as all colours disappear in black, so merge into her all names and forms. Density of blackness – massive, compact and unmixed, represents Pure Consciousness. Kali as Digambari, garbed in space – in her nakedness, free from all covering of illusion, defines to the Tantrika the journey from the unreal to the real. In full breasted Kali, symbolic of her ceaseless motherhood, the Tantrika discovers her power to preserve. Her disheveled hair – elokeshi, are symbolic of the curtain of death which surrounds life with mystery. In her garland of fifty-two human heads, each representing one of the fifty-two letters of Sanskrit alphabets, the Tantrika perceives repository of power and knowledge. The girdle of hands, the principal instrument to work, reveals her power with which the cosmos operates and in her three eyes, its three-aspected activity – creation, preservation and destruction. Both Kali and Tantra are epitome of unity of apparent dualism. As her terrifying image, the negative aspect of her being and thus of the cosmos, is the creative life-force, the source of creation, so in Tantra-sadhana, the journey takes off from the ‘material’ to the apex – the ultimate.

This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. February 2009


Durga: Adi-Shakti

Durga, the most highly worshipped goddess of Indian masses held in alike reverence in all sectarian lines, even Buddhist and Jain, in her form as Durga or in one of her many transforms – the ferocious Tara of Buddhists or the nurturing mother Ambika of Jains, is the ultimate of divine power capable of eradicating every evil and every wrong, and nurturing and sustaining life in whichever form it exists. Not a mere epiphenomenal expansion of a visual culture that the Indian land is known to have now for millenniums, or a disembodied divine authority sustaining in believing minds, Durga is perceived as a dynamic presence with a form, or rather in any form engaged in eradicating the dark and everything adverse to life and sustaining good and righteous.

The term ‘Durga’ brings to mind a multi-armed lion-riding divinity that on one hand is possessed of rare feminine beauty and imperishable youth, and on the other, carries in her hands various instruments of war and on her face the determination to avenge her devotee’s tormenter and punish a wrong-doer, and all combined with a unique quiescence and confidence as if triumph is the foregone conclusion of all her battles against evil. The Puranic tradition inclines to venerate Durga as just one of the names of Devi, the cosmic Divine Female who created, sustained and destroyed. Despite such preference of the Puranas for the term ‘Devi’ for defining the overall vision of the cosmic Divine Female even initially Durga acquires among Devi’s other manifestations a distinction denotative of a class which is not the same as epithets like Jagad-mata, Jagadamba, Vishveshwari, or whatever. The term Durga brings to mind a specific image which these epithets do not, perhaps because they are used with some kind of commonness for Devi’s all forms.

Devi-Mahatmya: The Glory of Goddess

The Devi-Mahatmya in the Markandeya Purana, a fifth-sixth century text (though with his presence on many occasions alluded to in the Mahabharata the date of sage Markandeya seems to be much earlier; maybe, Markandeya was the common appellation of the sages in the line, not the name of an individual sage, or in view of his timeless contribution the name of sage Markandeya was subsequently added), perceives the aggregate cosmic energy as Mahamaya: Vishnu’s ‘shakti’ that the text defines as Devi manifesting in three aspects, viz., Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati, having different forms and appearances but a common objective of avenging the wrong-doer. This in the Mahabharata like early texts and sculptures of the early centuries of the Common Era is the Durga’s role. Quite significant as it is, the Devi-Mahatmya uses the term ‘Durga’, as it uses the term ‘Devi’, in its all sections devoted to either of Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati, which indicates that these are as much the Durga’s manifestations, as they are the Devi’s. The text perceives Devi primarily as the redeemer of ‘durgam’ – the most difficult, a situation, act, or objective, and hence, Devi is Durga – the redeemer of ‘durgam’, in her every aspect.

The text is full of expressions that are denotative of the Durga’s supreme divinity, such as ‘Durgam jayakhyam’, that is, victory is her other name, or ‘Durgasi Durgabhawasagaranaurasanga’, that is, Durga is the boat that takes across the cycle of birth and death; the one, that is, Durga as victory is the ultimate of all worldly acts, and the other, that is, Durga as ‘Tarini’ – redeemer from the cycle of birth and death is the ultimate of every spiritual endeavour. In the ‘Viniyoga’ – the fore-verse or the introductory couplet of the second Canto, the Devi-Mahatmya asserts this supremacy of Durga metaphysically too. It alludes to Durga as ‘Durga bijam’, that is, Durga, the seed. ‘Bija’ is a widely used term in Sanskrit for defining the ‘essential root’ from which a form evolves. All major ‘Mantras’ – mystic syllables, or hymns pregnant with mystic powers, have their ‘bija-mantras’, their essential pith out of which the related mantra’s body evolves. Accordingly, the term ‘Durga bijam’ suggests that the text perceives Durga as the basic essence of the Devi’s all manifestations. Thus, the Devi-Mahatmya might be seen as considering Devi and Durga as one, and this same reflects in most of the commentaries of the Devi-Mahatmya part of the Markandeya Purana that have often preferred calling this section of the text as ‘Durga-Saptashati’.

Durga’s Antiquity

As regards her antiquity Durga is an entity beyond time. Even the Markandeya Purana that identifies Mahamaya – Devi’s proto form, as Vishnu’s ‘shakti’ contends with specificity that it was her who gave to Vishnu, as also to Brahma and Shiva, their forms. This statement has two implications, one that she preceded not only Vishnu but the great Trinity, and the other, that she was Vishnu’s ‘shakti’ by invocation and by her favour, not by Vishnu’s authority. Thus, by whatever name, the Great Goddess preceded all forms, their creator, sustainer and destroyer, the time that spanned them and the space where they evolved. Ironically, sage Markandeya sought to subordinate her to Vishnu as his ‘shakti’ but overwhelming him, or rather the entire Trinity, the goddess bowed them to her subordination. In the tradition gods, even Trinity, are often seen bowing to her in devotion but Durga is never seen bowing to any, divine or demonic, justifying her name ‘Jaya’.

Obviously, the scale of time is not Durga’s scale. It is only the date of her earliest appearance in a medium, text, or iconography, by which her antiquity is determined. When in the eleventh Canto of the Devi-Mahatmya Devi declares that in the twenty-eighth eon of Vaivasvata Manvantara she would incarnate and kill the demon Durgam and assume Durga as her name, sage Markandeya does not suggest the period of Durga’s emergence as posterior to the period of his text. The concurrent age is Vaivasvata Manvantara but it is only by very complicated astronomical calculations that one can know when exactly its twenty-eighth eon passed, perhaps millions of years ago, and hence, it is not known when Devi assumed Durga as her name. Thus, mythically the Great Goddess manifested as Durga in the twenty-eighth eon of this Manvantara, but it is simply a period beyond human calculation.

Durga: The Initial Manifestation of Devi

Thus, Devi had in any medium or tradition her earliest manifestation as Durga. It seems that the Devi’s form as Durga, a goddess of battlefield always in action, as nurturing mother or as avenging warrior engaging in battle one demon or other, has been conceived in stark contrast to the passive non-operating votive image of the Mother Goddess of Indus settlements, and the nature-deities of the ‘Yajna’ of the Rig-Veda, perhaps around the same time when the other two cults were in greater prevalence. Excavations of Indus or Harappan sites reveal no signs of a warrior goddess, and barring a few contentions, such as makes S. K. Ramachandra Rao who contends in his Durga-Kosha that Durga is one of the goddesses that the Rig-Veda enumerates, broadly Durga is not considered a goddess from the Rig-Vedic pantheon. Whatever the merit of such claims and counter-claims in regard to Durga’s position in the Rig-Veda, there is absolute unanimity in regard to Durga’s presence in the Mahabharata, the great epic datable broadly to sixth-fifth century B.C.

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It seems that by the period of the Mahabharata not only Durga was a popularly invoked deity but also had a body of hymns, and perhaps some shrines and some kind of imagery too, dedicated to her. The Mahabharata lauds Durga, by her name as Durga, not Devi, as Tribhuwaneshvari – the goddess that ruled all three worlds. Though the Mahabharata does not use the term ‘durgam’, which is repeatedly used in the Devi-Mahatmya comprising the primary contextual basis for her name as Durga, in the Mahabharata too, the Great Goddess is commemorated in situations which are ‘durgam’. The Mahabharata does not confound Durga with Devi as the Devi-Mahatmya seems to sometimes do. The great epic alludes to her in all clarity and with absolute distinction as ‘Devim Durgam Tribhuwaneshvari’ – goddess Durga, the ruler of three worlds, and at another place, as ‘Parajayaya shatrunam Durgastotra mudiraye’ – commemoration of Durga Stotra defeats enemies.

As stipulated between them and Kauravas, the Pandavas were required to pass the thirteenth year of their exile in complete concealment without being seen and identified, a really difficult situation. They decide to disguise as cook, tutor, attendant etc. and seek jobs as the household servants of king Virata, the ruler of Matsya-desha. Before they enter the city of Virata, Yudhishthara along with his brothers commemorate ‘Devim Durgam Tribhuwaneshvari’, obviously for the accomplishment of their errand. Again, just when the Great War is in the offing and the forces of Kauravas and Pandavas are arrayed in the battlefield, Krishna commands Arjuna to commemorate with pure heart ‘Durga-stotra’ – hymns dedicated to Durga, for ‘Parajayaya shatrunam’, that is, for the defeat of the enemy. Arjuna commemorates Durga and then she appears in the sky and grants Pandavas the boon of victory. In ‘Devim Durgam Tribhuwaneshvari’ the Mahabharata uses the term ‘Devim’ as Durga’s defining epithet, not like the Devi-Mahatmya where ‘Durga’ is Devi’s epithet. Notably, it is Krishna, Vishnu’s incarnation, who perceives in Durga the ultimate power, obviously even beyond Vishnu, to defeat enemies.

Durga’s priority as the Devi’s principal manifestation reflects more powerfully in sculptures of the early centuries of the Common Era. Durga, multi-armed, as also normal two-armed, carrying various weapons in her hands and sometime crammed into her coiffure, is with absolute clarity the goddess of battlefield.

As suggest a good number of her sculptures that have along her icons a buffalo figure, elimination of Mahishasura, the buffalo-demon, was not only her exploit but the legend seems to have been more popular than others. This Devi-form, avenging tormenters and wrong-doers, was essentially the ultimate goddess of battlefield and represented iconically the Mahabharata’s Durga who ruled all three worlds and defeated enemies in the battlefield.

The Durga icons from around the fifth-sixth centuries record a significant departure in the iconography of the goddess. The goddess is seen still carrying in her hands the instruments of annihilation, but is also seen carrying in her left arm a child. Prof. Pratapaditya Pal has rightly perceived it as the phase when the avenging Goddess had synthesized into her being also the ‘nurturing Mother’: The absolute vision of Durga, the Universal Mother and the Ultimate Protector.

This form of Durga seems to have fully concretized when sage Markandeya composed his poem ‘Devi-Mahatmya’. Perhaps for greater dimensional breadth or for unity between different sectarian groups sage Markandeya first alternated Durga with Devi, a far more inclusive and somewhat abstract term, and then split her form into her three manifestations: Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati, all multi-armed, all carrying in their various hands instruments of destruction, and all conceived with large breasts full of milk and motherly attributes, representing Durga’s warlike bearing as also her motherhood. These new forms, viz., Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati, were more in line with the ‘Tri-murti’ cult.

The Rig-Veda talked of Vak, or Saraswati, and Shri, another name of Lakshmi, and excavations have revealed signs of a ferocious divinity being worshipped by Indus settlers. However, the Devi-Mahatmya’s models of Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati were different from both. Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati seem to have been modeled after Durga, and Mahakali, is textually too, a transform of the principal goddess of the battlefield, Devi or Durga.

Thus, Devi or her manifestations, Mahalakshmi, Mahakali or Mahasaraswati, are Durga’s forms, and Devi is merely her defining epithet as is Devata of the male divinities. The term ‘Devata’ does not denote a specific divinity because of such Devatas’ plurality. Devi’s singularity makes the term ‘Devi’ synonymous to Durga. Even in Puranic tradition the Devi’s Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati manifestations seem to have failed to long retain at least their Durga-like martial role. Mahalakshmi, as Lakshmi and Mahasaraswati, as Saraswati, shed finally their warlike bearing and join Lord Vishnu’s and Brahma’s households with roles completely different from what they had in their proto Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati forms.

On the contrary, Durga’s form explodes to variously manifest, even in subsidiary forms like Matrikas and Mahavidyas: all the forms of battlefield.

Her tender aspect as Parvati, and ferocious, as Kali, accompany Shiva as his consorts, one completely dedicated, and other, moody, unpredictable and dominating, perhaps as suited Shiva’s two major aspects, ‘lalita’ and ‘Bhairava’. Whatever about the early prevalence of the cult of a Kali-like ferocious goddess, the earliest known allusions to Parvati are from the Puranas, though in a brief span, from around seventh century onwards, there crops up not only a huge body of myths but also her numerous icons mostly representing her as engaged in ‘panchagni-tapa’ – performing penance in the midst of five fires.

Annihilation of Demons Shumbha and Nishumbha

As already discussed, Durga, a dynamic and militant goddess, had emerged in theology by at least the sixth-fifth century B. C. As suggests ‘Parajayaya shatrunam Durgastotra mudiraye’, people around the period of the Mahabharata invoked her by reciting her ‘stotra’ – commemorative verses. It indicates that Durga was by then an established deity and had devoted to her a body of commemorative hymns and perhaps a few other texts, and was invoked for defeating one’s enemy. Notably, in the tenth Canto of the Devi-Mahatmya, while confronting the Goddess, Shumbha, the demon chief, cries in fury ‘Balawalepadduste twam ma Durge garwamavaha’ – O ye wicked Durga, thy power, thou art proud of, is false. It is well settled that in fury, or any kind of emotion, the mind bursts with words which are its most natural idiom. Obviously, Shumbha uttered Durga’s name instinctively as if he used it in routine.

As regards her name as ‘Durga’, the Devi-Mahatmya makes two propositions. It emphasizes more on the Devi’s power to redeem her votaries from ‘durgam’ that she got ‘Durga’ as her name: almost an epithet extolling her role. In the eleventh chapter of the Devi-Mahatmya Devi herself announces her emergence at a given time when she would kill the demon Durgam and assume Durga as her name. Though redeemer of ‘durgam’ – a difficult situation, or ‘durgati’ – a great misfortune, which some texts consider the basis for her name as Durga, ever continues to be Durga’s role, annihilation of demon Durgam and hence Durga her name is more often the contention of the later texts and theological tradition. The simple allusion to demon Durgam in the Devi-Mahatmya is expanded into a body of fully grown myths. They not only add to the legend a dimensional breadth but also come out with details of Durgam’s demonic acts and lineage, some linking him with Ruru’s clan, and other with Dhruta’s and Hiranyaksha’s. It is, however, unanimously contended that Durgam sought to destroy the Vedas, and that Devi had killed him for such act of him, and this gave her, her Durga name. Some texts contend that she was protector of ‘durgas’ – forts, and hence her Durga name.

Origin of Durga As Devi : Adi-Shakti

In regard to the origin of Durga or Devi there prevail two traditions, one that venerates her as Adi-Shakti – primordial cosmic energy, suggestive of her presence when the Creation had yet to take effect and ever before and after, and the other, suggestive of her creation out of gods’ divine attributes for accomplishing an objective.

Maha Shakti

As has the Puranic tradition which culminates in the Devi Bhagavata, millions of years after the Great Deluge, and all forms, except the all-encompassing ocean and abyssal darkness, perished, floating on a banyan leaf on the surface of the ocean of milk there emerged Vishnu as child known in the tradition as Bala Mukunda. Bewildered he looked around and his mind questioned, ‘Who am I?’, and ‘Who created me and what for?’ When wrestling with a volley of questions from within, Vishnu heard an ethereal voice that announced : ‘Sarvam khalvidamevaham, Nanyadasti sanatanam’, that is, ‘All that is, I am, there is nothing eternal but me’. Soon after, Vishnu had in his vision the form of a lustrous youthful four-armed female divinity carrying a conch, disc, club and lotus, and clad in divine costume and ornaments, and with twenty-one celestial powers in attendance. Vishnu instantly realised that she was the Adi-Shakti, Devi, and paid her homage. She revealed to Vishnu his identity and role. According to this tradition, Durga, the Adishakti’s initial manifestation, preceded time and all forms, and had manifestations, not birth or origin.

Devi, Created Out of Gods’ Attributes

The other tradition, and more akin to public mind, relates to her emergence for killing Mahisha, a buffalo demon by name and appearance. He was born to the demon king Rambha of his buffalo-wife. Rambha was a Shiva-devotee. The childless Rambha, by long rigorous penance, pleased Shiva who granted him the boon that he would be born to him as his son. On way-back Rambha was fascinated by a she-buffalo’s beauty. He married her and Mahisha was born. As this tradition has it, Mahisha was part of Shiva. By his great penance Mahisha won from Brahma the boon of invincibility against all male. With this boon he grew highly ambitious and arrogant, as also atrocious and cruel. He grabbed the entire earth and also invaded heaven and defeated Indra and all other gods forcing them to flee. Gods approached Brahma and knew from him about Mahisha’s boon of invincibility against all males and that, if ever, only a female could kill him. Gods, theirs’ being a male world, felt helpless. On Brahma’s advice they went to Shiva, and finally to Vishnu and after due deliberations Vishnu suggested that with their aggregate divine lustre they should create a female power to kill Mahisha.

Lord Vishnu had hardly finished when from Brahma’s body burst a rare lustre, red as ruby, which was both, hot and cold; from Shiva’s body there exploded a burst of white bright rays, as brilliant as diamond; similar brilliance burst from Vishnu’s body, blue as blue sapphire; from the bodies of Indra, Varuna, Kuber, Yama, Agni and other gods also burst similar lustre, which all combined and soon transformed into an eighteen-armed youthful woman possessed of astonishing beauty, rare feminine grace and divinity such as had never enshrined a female form. A form for battlefield, she also represented the absolute womanhood on earth. Her face was formed by the powers of Shiva, hair, by Yama’s, all eighteen arms, by Vishnu’s, breasts, eye-brows, ears, nose, teeth, fingernails, waist, thighs and ankles, buttocks, toe-nails, feet, eyes, respectively by the powers of Moon, Twilight, Vayu, Kuber, Prajapati, Vasu, Indra, Varuna, Earth, Brahma, Sun, Agni.

On Vishnu’s instance gods gifted to her their ornaments and clothes as also weapons and other attributes. Kshirasagara – ocean of milk, presented to the goddess imperishable clothes and precious jewels, Shesh, a necklace inlaid with celestial gems glistening like crores of suns, Varuna, a garland of lotuses that never faded, and a noose, and Himavana, his lion for her mount. Vishnu replicated a disc from his and offered it to the goddess. Alike, Shiva replicated and gave her his trident, Varuna, his conch, Agni, his ‘shakti’, Vayu, his bow and quiver full of arrows, Indra, thunderbolt and bell, Yama, ‘danda’, Brahma, ‘kamandalu’, Kala – Death, sword and shield, Vishvakarma, his battle-axe and other divine powers, their respective attributes : mace, armour, gold-pot full of honey etc. Finally, gods extolled the goddess by various epithets and hymns and prayed with folded hands to kill arrogant Mahishasura, their tormenter and restore to them Indraloka and their power.

The Goddess delightfully accepted the prayer. With a thunderous roar that rocked the earth from one end to other she proceeded to battlefield. Hearing the roar and taking it as some kind of threat Mahisha with his army and all demon warriors rushed in the direction the roar came from. He saw a female form with thousands of arms covering the entire cosmos. A baffled Mahisha commanded his generals to kill the woman. Chikshura, Chamara, Udagra, Mahahanu, Asiloma, Baskala, Parivarita, Bidala, Uddhata, Ugrasya, Ugravirya, Durdhara, Durmukha and many more, each with a large contingents comprising millions of demon-soldiers, attacked the goddess from different directions and in courses but the Devi destroyed all their weapons and killed them.

When Mahisha saw his warriors’ plight, the enraged demon took to buffalo’s form and whirling like a devastating cyclone he began tossing the earth and oceans like shuttles with his tail. With his horns he moved mountains, and with his feet, foot-nails and muzzle cleft the earth and skies. When the goddess was about to cut his head, the demon transformed into an elephant. Alike, when the goddess’ mount lion caught the elephant’s trunk and was about to kill him, he retuned to his buffalo form. This time Devi caught hold of him and when he was about to return to his human form, with barely the head coming out of the buffalo’s torso, she decapitated it. The Devi-Mahatmya perceives this form of Devi as Mahalakshmi.

The Devi-Bhagavata, another equally venerated text on Devi, has a slightly varying versions of the myth: something on the line of Shumbha myth, where hearing of the exceptional beauty of the Devi Shumbha sends his messenger to her to persuade her to become his wife, and when he fails, his army chief Dhumralochana to bring her by force. In the Devi-Bhagavata version, hearing of her rare beauty, Mahisha sends his prime minister to her and bring her to him without doing her any harm. Mahisha’s prime minister does as commanded but Devi tells him, to his utter surprise, that she had come to kill Mahisha to redeem gods of his atrocities. She also tells him to advise his master to leave Indraloka and return to nether world, which alone could save his life. Details of war are almost identical in the two texts.

As Devi Durga’s Other Exploits

A dynamic and militant goddess, Durga’s modus operandi was quite diversified. Often she killed demons by her own hands but sometimes she got it done by powers she created from within her, and sometimes, by assisting other gods, Vishnu in particular. Once when Vishnu was in long sleep, his ears yielded some wax from which two demons, Madhu and Kaitabha, were born. The notorious demons wanted to kill Brahma and destroy Vedas. Devi, as Nidra-devi, not only woke Vishnu but when he was unable to kill them even after ten thousand years of battle, she deluded the two demons to grant to Vishnu the boon by which he could kill them.

Hayagriva, a demon with horse-head, had become invincible as under a boon by Devi herself he could be killed by none other than Hayagriva himself. First, under a curse by her, in her form as Lakshmi, Vishnu’s head drops, and then on her advice a horse-head is planted on his torso transforming him into another Hayagriva – horse-headed, and thus enabling him to kill Hayagriva, the demon.

Identically to Mahisha’s legend the texts have the legend of annihilation of Shumbha and Nishumbha who too under a boon could not be killed by a male – born or unborn. As in the other myth, after her creation by gods’ collective powers, Durga, glistening like a thousand suns, occupies a hill-top. Hearing of her rare beauty the demon chief Shumbha sends to her his messenger and, when he fails to persuade her for becoming his master’s consort, two mighty demons, Chanda and Munda, to drag her to him. Seeing her seated on the hill-top Chanda and Munda, with a huge army of demons, rushed towards her. Their arrogance enraged the goddess and in fury her face and entire body turned black and a ferocious form was born. This ferocious form of the goddess severed the two demons’ heads and brought them to Durga. In later tradition, this ferocious form of Durga is venerated and extensively represented in sculptures from ninth-tenth century onwards as Chamunda, the destroyer of Chanda and Munda.

Hearing of the fate of Chanda and Munda the enraged Shumbha sends his army general Dhumralochan to catch hold of her and produce her before him, and when he too was killed, his minister Raktabija to punish the woman and present her to him. Raktabija had a boon by which each drop of his blood, no sooner than it fell on the earth, transformed into a new Raktabija demon. From within her Durga summoned Kali who with her all-encompassing tongue covered the entire earth and swallowed every drop of the demon’s blood before it fell on the earth.

An Episode from Devi Mahatmya (Matrikas Fighting against Demons)
She also swallowed hordes of demons that such blood-drops had produced. Consequently Raktabija was killed. Likewise, Nishumbha, Shumbha’s brother, and later Shumbha himself were killed by Durga in her one form or other. In her battle against Shumbha and his hordes the goddess sought assistance of Sapta-Matrikas – seven mothers, namely Brahmani, Maheshvari, Karttikeyi or Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Narasimhi, and Indrani. Though identified as the powers of male gods, Brahma, Shiva, Karttikeya Vishnu, Vishnu in his Boar and Narsimha incarnations, and Indra, they were Devi’s own manifestations.

Iconic Vision of Durga

In Durga’s icons, votive or aesthetic, her eighteen-armed lion-riding form, killing the buffalo demon Mahisha, known in the tradition as ‘Mahishasura-Mardini’, prevails over her all other forms. Even her aesthetic beauty is best represented in her Mahishasura-Mardini form for it combines sublime beauty with sublime force, and of course, strangeness of anatomy with absolute physical balance. This form of Durga is, hence, as much the theme of aesthetic art as of sanctum images. Her brilliantly clad and ornamented form is conceived with youthful vigour, golden-hued, rare beauty and divine quiescence on the face. Her images are modeled with pot-like large breasts, as filled with milk, representing her as the feeding mother as also her absolute womanhood.

As the Devi-Mahatmya has it, when in battlefield, Durga creates thousands of hands, or as many as would enable her to destroy the enemy. Hence, her figures are conceived as multi-armed, their number varying usually from four to eighteen, that is, four, six, eight, ten, twelve, sixteen or eighteen. The attributes she carries in her hands are variously listed in different texts. The Markandeya Purana itself has variations. Against her eighteen-armed Mahishasura-Mardini form carrying rosary, axe, mace, arrow, thunderbolt, lotus, bow, chain, noose, rod, ‘shakti’, sword, shield, conch, bell, honey-pot, spear and disc, as visualized in the Devi-Mahatmya part, she has been conceived elsewhere in the Markandeya Purana merely with ten arms carrying in them sword, disc, mace, arrow, bow, rod, spear, ‘bhushundi’, head and conch, and at another place, just with four arms carrying in them conch, disc, sword and trident.

Durga is sometimes seen carrying serpent, dagger, goad among others besides a crescent on her coiffure and a third eye on her forehead: her Shaivite attributes. In India’s most parts her sanctum images are either operative as when killing demon Mahisha or static, as seated on her lion, though in both cases she is represented as carrying her essential weapons as would a goddess of battlefield. In South, she is usually lotus-seated and is worshipped by various other names. In folk traditions of Bengal, Orissa, Bihar – Mithila region in special, Uttar Pradesh and tribal belts of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh Durga is the most popularly worshipped deity. Her cow-dung images, symbolic of fertility and purity, those in colours or in ceramic medium, might be seen adorning the walls of any dwelling, a mud-house or a sophisticated mansion.

This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet.


Dreams: Glimpsing the All-Illuminating Illumination

An individual experiences the three states of wakefulness, dream and deep sleep. A baby in the womb lies in deep sleep for about twelve hours, dreams for about nine hours and is awake for about three hours. As age advances sleep decreases. Out of these three states, the specialty of the wakeful state is that in it we transact with the outer world using our sense organs. Also, in contrast to the other two states, our eyes are open while we are awake. Hence this state is also called ‘Netrasthana’ in Sanskrit, meaning ‘placed in the eye’.
The Light (Jyoti) Illuminating Our Worldly Transactions
No transaction is possible without a light. What is the light which is necessary for our activities in the state of wakefulness? In daytime it is the sun; in the sun’s absence during night it is the moon and the stars; and when they are both absent, it is Agni, i.e. fire.

What is the Dream State?

Vedanta analyzes the dream state to bring out the nature of the light illuminating our dreams. When Vedanta discusses the world or its creation, the purpose is not to unearth the physics behind it, but rather to make us understand that the world in its essential nature (Swarupa) is nothing but the Supreme Soul Brahman Itself. Similarly, the discussion of dreams is not to understand the psychology of it, but only the intrinsic nature of the light (Jyoti) illuminating it.

During our waking state, our senses act through our gross body and conduct transactions. In due course, the Jiva becomes tired by this (Shankaracharya’s Commentary on Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.1). Then the Jiva leaves his position in the eyes (Netra-sthana), and descends to the heart. The organs of knowledge (Jnana-Indriyas), namely the power to see, hear, smell, taste and touch, all leave their locations in the gross body, and enter the mind (manas). This mind (with the organs of knowledge inside it), enters into the heart. Thus the transactions with the outside world come to a stop. However, the mind does not stop its functions (Prashna Upanishad 4.2). This is the dream state (Swapna).

The experience of dreams is the state where the sense organs (Indriyas) are resting, but the mind continues to experience without resting (Mahabharata Mokshadharma 275.24). However, the vital airs (Prana) animating the body do not leave their places and hence they continue to protect the physical (gross) body as they do when we are awake (Prashna Upanishad 4.3-4). That is why a sleeping body does not appear like an inauspicious corpse, but continues to be auspicious.

During dreams, the mind continues to supply from inwards the awareness to the Jiva, according to the residual desires (Vasanas) contained in the mind. These awarenesses are only vibrations of the mind without any external stimuli. However, in contrast to the waking state, when we are dreaming, everything is made up of our Vasanas. For example, though actually the body is sleeping here, in our dreams we may find our body walking somewhere else. Indriyas are resting here, but active in the dream; Breathing is regular here, but we may find ourselves gasping in a dream. Whatever we see in our dreams has no physical (gross) component to it, i.e. the content of the dream world is only the Vasana experienced inwardly in the mind of the dreamer (Shankaracharya’s Commentary on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.10).

The Dream World

All transactions in the world make their appearances in our dreams. There is a whole world there. There are chariots, horses to pull them and also roads to drive them through. However, they are only visible to the dreamer, not to others. Here the world is not objective like the Akasha etc. seen in the world which is a creation of God (Shankaracharya’s Commentary on the Brahma Sutras 3.2.4). The dream world is false, there is not even a trace of objectivity in it. The content of the dream world is only the mental modifications of the sleeper, and not made up of the five primary elements (Pancha-Mahabhuta) created by God, which are the basic building blocks of the physical world, and which are experienced by all (Brahma Sutra 3.2.3).

Also, most importantly, the dreamer is untouched by the Paap (Sin) and Punya (Merit)) he performs in his dreams. This is because the mind during sleep is independent and out of the dreamer’s direct control. In dream one only sees the Punya and Paap, he does not actually do them (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.15). Not only this, even the pleasure and pain experienced in the dream state are only Vasanas. The transactions which took place in the outer world are seen in dreams by the dreamer staying within the body (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 2.1.18). That is why the Vedas describe the dream world as the creation of the Jiva. There are no chariots there, no horses and no roads. But he creates the chariots, horses and the roads (Br.U. 4.3.10).

While there is no activity of the gross body in the dream state, from the point of view of the activity of the mind, there is no difference between the actual world (Jagat) and the dream world. However, the world created by God puts a leash on the mind during our waking state, where external objects pull us towards them. But, since the sense organs are inactive during dreams, the leash of the external world is snapped and the mind has a free play. The wakeful world created by God is well ordered through place, time and causal connections. This is not so the case with the world of dreams (Brahma Sutra 3.2.3). The dream world is totally false. There is no order there with regard to space-time and causality. What is a man now, becomes a tree the next moment; and the tree an animal. Dreams are only a recall of the memory of what has happened in the waking world.

There is no rule that one should see only what one has seen earlier. One can add his own imagination to the memory of what was seen in the waking state. However, what is impossible even to imagine, can never be seen in a dream.

Dreams: A Junction of This World and That World

Though dream experience is largely a memory recall of the transactions done in the waking state, sometimes something special may also be seen according to one’s knowledge, actions and previous experiences (including past lives). These may include seeing other worlds where one has to go after death. One does not directly experience the pleasures and pains of these other worlds in one’s dreams, rather one simply sees them. Therefore, the dream world is sometimes described as a junction between this world and the next (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.9). Not only that, one can foresee in dreams even the future events of one’s life. For example, one who never thinks about women, when he sees one in his dreams, can be assured that his desired endeavors will bear fruit (Chandogya Upanishad 5.2.8). Seeing a dark person with black teeth indicates the dreamer’s death (Aitreya Aranyaka 3.2.4). The woman and the dark man with black teeth are of course mental forms; however, the success of one’s Karma or one’s impending death foretold by the dreams are real, not false (Brahma Sutra 3.2.4).

Who Creates Our Dreams?
This question arises because different Upanishads seem to give different statements in this regard. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad indicates that the Jiva (individual soul) is himself the creator of his dreams. ‘He creates the chariots, the horses and the roads for himself’ (Br.U.4.3.10).

However, the Katha Upanishad says that God is the one who creates our dreams. ‘When all are sleeping, the One who is awake creating different sights in the dream is the divine Brahman’ (Katha Upanishad 2.2.8).

Further, the Prashna Upanishad attributes the creation of dreams to the mind: ‘During dreams, all the senses merge in the great mind. This mind experiences the grandeur of dreams’ (Prashna Upanishad 4.5).

Therefore, the three texts give three different versions as to who is the creator of dreams. Remember however that we all know the Vedas contain no contradictions (See Exotic India Article of the Month September 2010). Thus we will see how Shri Shankaracharya has reconciled these apparently differing statements about the creator of our dreams.

The Answer:
The creator of his dreams is indeed the Jiva himself because it is clearly said that he ‘creates for himself’ (Brhadaranyaka). None of the other two quotes explicitly use the word ‘creates.’ This is logically correct also because it is only the Jiva’s Vasana that appears as the dream world.

But the Jiva sometimes gets undesirable dreams also. How can he be the creator if he has no control over his dreams?

Yes, of course. Jiva does not have control because it is God who shows up his dreams as per his Vasana.

Then we have to say that God is the creator?

That is not right. Suppose one eats too much and gets a stomach ache; nobody says that it is the Vaishnavara (fire in the body which is responsible for digestion, and which is a form of God, Bhagavad Gita: 15.14) which is responsible for this pain. They say that the individual has caused it himself. It is true that he does not want this pain. He has no control over it either; but still he is himself responsible for it. He has no control over it after he has over-eaten. Had he control while eating, he would not have had the pain at all.

Further Doubt:
How then does the Prashna Upanishad attribute the creation of dreams to the mind?

It is because the Jiva experiences dreams using the instrument of his mind. For example, when rice is being pounded, even though there is someone responsible for the pounding, we say that “this pestle pounds well”. Thus, the responsibility for the dream world is attributed to the mind even though it acts as a mere instrument, while it is the Jiva who is actually the creator of dreams. The Vedas adopt the style of direct teaching from the Guru to disciple; the Guru uses the words according to the situation. One who cannot understand this may think that it could be a contradiction.

Does the Jyoti Illuminating Our Dreams Belong to the Body?
Above we have read about the light (Jyoti) facilitating our transactions when we are awake. There the illumination comes from the sun, moon etc. But in the dreams there is no scope for any of them to operate. The Katha Upanishad says:

‘The sun does not shine there. The moon, the stars, the lightning do not shine there. Nor does fire’ (KaU 2.2.15).

However, in the dream state too the Jiva gets all the awarenesses just as he does when he is awake. What is the Jyoti for them? It is certainly not from the outside. It has to be only from inside. The question is: Is this Jyoti connected with the body or something different? According to one view this light is of our body. How do we say that our body has the capacity to generate a Jyoti? Because of the fact that when one rubs ones eyes one sees stars inside. Similarly, the Jyoti in dreams too is related to the body. This is the view of those who do not believe in the Vedas.

The Light Illuminating Our Dreams is Not of the Body
The above view however is wrong. The reason is as follows: One who had seen something with his physical eyes in the wakeful state, sees the same again in a dream even after becoming blind. Therefore the seer must be someone who is different from the eyes. Previously what was seen with the eyes is now seen without the eyes. Therefore, this Jyoti does not belong to the eyes, i.e. it is not connected with the body.

Objection by the Atheist (Non-Believer in the Vedas): Not like that. What we meant was that whatever is seen by the sense organs when we are awake is recorded in the mind as Vasana. This Vasana itself shows up as objects in dreams. Therefore the mind now plays two roles – as the seen object and also as the seer. Therefore the light in which we see the dreams (Swapna-Jyoti), is of the mind, which we know is related to the body.

Reply by Vedantin: In that case it is agreed by you that the seer is different from the eyes. Further if you say that the mind is the seer of dreams, what then is the instrument through which it sees the dream? For example, in the waking state it is our eyes which serve as instruments to view the world. We have already seen that they cannot serve as instruments for us to see dreams. If we take the mind as the seer of dreams, then it will require an instrument other than itself to see the dream. However, no such instrument exists. (Brahma Sutra 2.3.38)

In fact, it is but our common experience that the mind (and everything else) is absent when we are in deep sleep (Sushupti). Therefore, the true seer is the one who is different from the mind, and witnesses the mind’s absence during deep sleep.

Therefore, the light illuminating our dreams does not belong to the mind either.

The Light Illuminating Our Dreams is that of the Atman (Soul)
This much is now decided: The Jyoti in dreams must be of one who is even beyond the mind. This is the Atman. Who is he? It is the one who is witnessing the absence of everything including the mind when we are in deep sleep. Though it is difficult to apprehend him, nobody doubts his existence. Therefore he shines in his own Jyoti, not by someone else’s. This is the Atman’s self-illuminating nature (Swayam-Jyotishtava), which is its essential nature (Swarupa).

Conclusion: The Facility with Dreams

Everybody knows the existence of the Atman, because no one can deny the ‘I’ in oneself. However, we are too used to viewing the Atman through the lens of certain conditioning adjuncts (Upadhis), superimposing the nature of these Upadhis on ourselves. For example, if the body is male one thinks he is a man, if female, he thinks he is a woman. Both man and woman are Himself, but He is neither a man or a woman. Therefore, in order to understand the Self-Illuminating (Swayam-Jyotishtava) of the Atman, he is to be freed from the outside lights and the lights of the Upadhis. What has been done in the dream state is precisely this. It is through the dream state that we get introduced to the soul’s self-illuminating nature. Though this Jyoti is same Jyoti which illuminates the waking state also, its pure and unalloyed nature remains unrecognized there in the humdrum of the external Jyotis. In our dreams this humdrum is suppressed and therefore its recognition becomes easy. Indeed, our countless salutations to our Atman, who by gracing us with the dream state, removes our darkness with its light, baring itself as the ‘One, Pure Illumination’, illuminating all other illuminations.

***This article is based almost entirely on the teachings of Param Pujya Swami Paramanand Bharati Ji. However, any errors are entirely the author’s own.

This Artilce by Nitin Kumar, July 2012

Vishnu: Cosmic Magnification of the Divine Being

Lord Vishnu, the central figure of the Brahmanical Gods-Trio and the most widely worshipped divinity of Indian masses, far beyond a sanctum-deity or temple-idol, manifests cosmos scaling it from its beginning to end and every inch of its space. In him is contained the creation, its expanse, action, inaction, matter, spirit, dynamism, inertia, growth, stagnation, virtues, vices, order, chaos, light, darkness, evolution, dissolution, life, its termination, illusions, all that exists, has ever existed or shall ever exist, as also that which is beyond existence. A personalised God, Vishnu is essentially the vision of abstraction. Not so much the manifest cosmos, he manifests its unseen, unmanifest inner source by which it evolves out of the debris of dissolution, by which it sustains, by which it again dissolves. He manifests the cycle, composition and decomposition, every transformation, and every form and non-form.

Not an overseer presiding over the cycle from beyond, Vishnu is the cycle’s inherent part. Two myths, often perceived as mutually contradicting, one of his emergence as a child on a fig leaf afloat the post-deluge oceanic waters, and the other, perceiving him as reclining on serpent Shesh in Kshirasagara, are symbolic extension of this cosmic process of which Vishnu is the axis.

As the former myth has it, after the Great Deluge subsides, all around are dark unfathomable waters with immeasurable expanse. Vishnu, just a child, emerges afloat on a fig leaf, something symbolic of nothingness, or comprising just a nominal support. The myth discovers Vishnu in child, as the child alone has possibilities of growing, the essence of Vishnu’s being. It sets him in darkness and over immeasurable seas, as it is only the darkness that contains the light in its womb and might release it, and, it is the immeasurable out of which the measured spaces are carved. Vishnu is not the creator but he only grows and expands and there-from emerge the manifest and the unmanifest worlds.

And, then there is the other myth. Vishnu, now fully grown-up, reclines in Kshirasagara – the ocean of milk, on the coils of serpent Shesh unfurling its hoods over him. Now Shri or Lakshmi, his spouse, is in attendance and from his navel rises the lotus.

Atop the lotus emerges Brahma with water-pot in one hand, Veda in another, rosary in the third, and the fourth being held in varada – the posture of benevolence, a total transformation of the myth which perceives Vishnu as child. The dark waters of the child Vishnu’s myth transform into the grown-up Vishnu’s ocean of milk abounding in unique radiance. The light pervades the darkness. Out of the immeasurable expanse are carved the measured length and width which the serpent Shesh, symbolic of life and representing the earth, manifests. Vishnu lying on it and holding it canopy-like above him pervades it. Lotus, symbolic of three cosmic regions – the earth, the sky and the ocean, is Vishnu’s offshoot, and so is Brahma emerging to define them in terms of creation. Brahma defined life, which the water contained in the pot symbolised; good and benevolence which pre-empted the course of life and regulated the creation; jnana – knowledge, which Veda in his hand symbolised; and, devotion, which the rosary in his other hand represented. Shri, Vishnu’s spouse, manifests his will to let it sustain and lead it to abundance.

Conjointly, the two myths illustrate the Vaishnava theory of Vishnu’s emergence and growth.

As the scriptural tradition has it, after every 60 crore, 18 lac, 34 thousand and 752 years of human calendar Vishnu disappears and then there is desolation and deep eternal silence for 30 crore, 9 lacs, 17 thousand and 376 years before he re-emerges and grows, and along with emerges the entire creation – the manifest as also the unmanifest. In Vedic perception Vishnu is a continuum, and in Puranic, a plurality. The term ‘vishnu’ is not an incidental catch for his name. ‘Vish’, the Sanskrit root out of which the term ‘vishnu’ developed, means ‘vyapana’, that is, to expand and pervade. Thus, Vishnu is one whose ultimate nature is ‘vyapana’. Hence, Vishnu is not a mere sanctum deity or worshippers’ idol but also a deep cosmo-metaphysical principle that defines on one hand the principle of evolution, and on the other, manifests the Rig-Vedic theory of God’s oneness and unity of the cosmos. Some scholars contemplate ‘vish’ as suggestive of one who is ‘incessantly in act’. Incessant is only the growth. Hence growth alone is the incessant act. Vishnu, who is the growth, and thus the incessant act and the essential nature of all things, is inherent in all things, manifest or unmanifest, and is their life. When Vishnu withdraws, the cosmos drops and perishes like the dead mass. It is thus that in the Great Trinity – the three aspected manifestation of the Formless God, Vishnu represents sustenance or preservation, and is the core of cosmic order.


The Vedas abound in strange mysticism and such mysticism is far deeper in case of Vishnu. The Rig-Veda assigns to Vishnu a status secondary to other gods, specially, Indra – the god of rains, Varuna – the god of oceans, Agni – the god of fire, Surya – the Sun-god, among others. Just five of the Rig-Vedic Suktas – hymns, are devoted to Vishnu, and in these too, he has not been attributed the status of an independent being. The Suktas do not recount any of his exploits, nor his role. The Rig-Veda perceives him just as another form of Surya assisting Indra – obviously a deity subsidiary to both. However, it is in such Rig-Vedic perception that the real mystique of Vishnu’s being lies. While the other Rig-Vedic gods, such as Surya or Agni, seek to deify nature’s corresponding entities, or represent, as do Varuna or Indra, some tangible aspect of nature, or even Brahman – the Creator, Vak – Speech, or Ushas – Dawn, representing some aspect of cosmic activity, Vishnu is a god by conception with no specificity of any kind. He has not been linked with any aspect of the universe, manifest or unmanifest. The Rig-Veda conceives him as a youth with as massive a build as pervaded the entire cosmos. It perceives Ushas also as a youthful maid with unique lustre but nonetheless it also links her with one of time-cycle’s phenomenal phases, which is the sun-rise.

The Rig-Veda does not do so in case of Vishnu. It does not link him with any specific aspect of nature, the tangible in the least, or assigns to him any specific role or phenomenalism.

Thus, unlike any other god of Vedic Order, Vishnu, even if a subsidiary god, is more or less an abstract concept, not corresponding to an aspect of materially or visually existing world. He is the only divinity whom the Rig-Veda seeks to personalise. The Rig-Veda uses for him terms like ‘urugaya’ – someone with long strides, ‘urukrama’ – someone with wide steps, ‘tri-pada’ – someone with three steps, that is, it perceives Vishnu as a massive-bodied youth capable of covering the entire space, width-wise and length-wise, in just three steps. At another place the Rig-Veda acclaims that he spans the entire universe with three strides, with two of which he covers the visible space, and with the third, which the Rig-Veda designates as ‘Parama-pada’, the space to which human eye does not have access. Thus, whatever the Rig-Vedic perception, Vishnu pervades all spaces, the ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’. The Vedas perceived some unmanifest levels also of other gods, especially of Agni that exists on a plane to which the human mind does not have access. But, such super-existence apart, the Rig-Veda weaves the veil of mysticism only around Vishnu, not barring the human mind from reaching it but rather allowing it to lift the veil and develop its own concept of him.


Vishnu Trivikrama (Vamana Incarnation)
Hence, it is not strange that in later Vedic literature – Samhitas, Brahmins and Upanishads, this subsidiary god of the Rig-Veda emerges as the most powerful divinity of the Vedic pantheon. The Shatpatha Brahman (14.1.1) illustrates through a myth how Vishnu attained such superior position. Once all gods performed a yajna stipulating that whoever accomplished it first would have supremacy over all other gods. Vishnu did it and was worshipped by all as the supreme of all gods. Tetreya Aranyaka (5.1. 1-7) gives to the myth of his supremacy a different dimension. It narrates that once Vishnu’s bow broke and with it broke his head. This broken head, with enormous lustre, took the form of the sun. Later, Ashwins – a class of celestial beings, re-planted this broken head on his torso. Thereafter Vishnu emerged as the supreme master of all three worlds. Shatpatha and Etareya Brahmans (1.2.5 and 6.15) recount further how Vishnu rescued all gods from demons and emerged as their natural superior. Once demons defeated gods and occupied their habitation, the world. The demons began breaking the land in fragments. This endangered its very existence. Gods approached Vishnu for setting the world free from demons. Vishnu transformed into a dwarf – Vamana, and went to the demon king. He asked the demon king for a piece of land measuring just three steps. When the prayer was granted, Vishnu magnified his form into cosmic dimensions so much so that in three steps he measured not merely the three worlds but also the Vedas and Vak, that is, all known and spoken. The Puranas modified the legend a little. The Vamana, a Brahmin, spanned in his cosmic magnification all three worlds in two steps and with the third pushed the demon king into the nether world. The Puranas designated this form of Vishnu as Vishnu-kranta, Tri-Vikram or Vikranta. This is one of his most widely represented forms in early sculptures.

Whatever Vishnu’s form in these later texts, the Rig-Veda contained the initial roots of such forms. Except Vishnu, all other gods that the Vedas personalized represented one of the manifest forms of nature, the sun, fire, wind, rain etc. Such personalization was unnatural and unconvincing, for one might perceive some kind of divinity in these forms of nature but not the face of man in any of them. On the contrary, personalization of Vishnu was more natural and convincing; obviously because the Vedas did not ever identify him with an otherwise manifest form. Rather, a concept of mind as he was, the Vedas, the Rig-Veda in particular, chose to visualise him in a human form. The Rig-Vedic mysticism begins from here. It talks of Vishnu as one would talk of a man but at the same time allows him to walk out of the man’s frame and vests in him unique divinity. As for Vishnu, he sometimes appears to be, but at other time, one beyond being, one beyond the entire manifest world.

This shift from the abstract or a nature-manifesting solar deity to one perceived anthropomorphically was effected partly out of the efforts of concretizing the Rig-Vedic mysticism and partly being necessitated by the Vedic worship-cult involving yajna as an essential aspect of day’s routine that had become by now quite methodical.

An anthropomorphic deity was better suited for presiding over such yajnas. This seems to have effected the shift from the solar god to a yajna-deity. Subordinated to Vishnu other Vedic gods did not have their prior status. They were sometimes yet personalised but either as subsidiary deities or as Dikpalas – guardians of directions, etc. Vishnu, other than Rudra-Shiva, was the only major personal god of this era and ever after. Rudra-Shiva was a god with wrathful nature worshipped mostly for preventing him from inflicting his wrath. The massive-bodied Vishnu was contrarily all-pervading and protective. Hence, in Vedic cult he soon had an enormous presence and with it the Vedic worship had two separate sects, the Shaivites and the Vaishnavite.


The Puranas pursued broadly the same line as the later Vedic texts in regard to Vishnu’s form and status in the pantheon. However, while the Vedic mysticism was still the dominant spirit of later Vedic texts it was largely missing in Puranas. Instead, in Puranas he emerged with far greater divine aura combined with such personal attributes – invincibility, stateliness, anatomy of a warrior, appearance and grace of a king, which made him more the supreme commander of the world rather than an abstract principle manifest. Hundreds of hymns in these Puranic texts lauded not merely his appearance – a robust build, oceanic blue complexion and figural distinction, or divinity, magnificence, or lustre but also his brilliant costume, precious jewels, special crown, and celestial flowers that he wore. Despite that he was perceived as possessing great majesty such as should the Lord of the world in command of all cosmic regions and all elements and a multi-armed anatomy, these texts brought to mind such personalized picture of Vishnu as of one’s next-door neighbour. Thus, the supreme monarch but with great personal touch Vishnu emerged as the foremost guardian and protector. This Vishnu was both, the benevolent boon-giver and the supreme deity of yajna as also the slayer of demons and the protector of the earth and its inhabitants. The Devi Bhagavata acclaims Vishnu to have fought a thousand battles against ‘asuras’ – demons. Not merely the supreme divinity, this Vishnu was also the supreme model of life manifesting both, the highest principles of faith and the brightest colours of culture.

This Puranic personalization of Vishnu gives to Indian art – sculpture and painting, a uniform, elaborate and well defined iconography. His anatomy and other aspects apart, Puranas also associated with him some attributes, body-postures and gestures of hands, all revealing some kind of symbolism or some of his related mythical contexts. The two of his postures are more usual; one as standing, and other as reclining. His standing posture with a forward thrust has Vedic connotations. It is the Rig-Vedic form of Vishnu as revealed in epithets like ‘urugaya’, ‘urukrama’ or ‘tri-patha’, already discussed before. This is the most usual form of Vishnu’s sanctum idols or votive iconography.

The other posture relates to the myth representing him reclining on the coils of serpent Shesh in the ocean of milk. In this form he is Nara, the cosmic ocean which spread everywhere before the creation of the universe. As he moves over these waters of cosmic oceans he is Narayana, ‘one who moves in water’.

His seated postures are rare except sometimes as in his manifestation as Yoga-Narayana, or in shrines like one at Badrinatha.

His Tri-Vikram form, representing him with one of his legs shot into the sky or onto the face of the demon king Bali, a representation of the myth of spanning the universe in three strides, has also been sculpted on temples’ walls.

Lintels of early Vishnu temples and sometimes even Shaiva, usually carry the image of Vishnu riding his mount Garuda. In Dasavatara panels on the door-frames of early temples too the Garudaruda – Garuda-mounted Vishnu, is usually the central figure.

He has been usually conceived with four arms, but sometimes also with six or eight carrying in them various attributes – a conch, lotus, mace, goad, disc, rod, sword, bow among others. Conch was a later addition, which was included in his attributes after his incarnation as Krishna he eliminated Shakhasura – the demon seeking refuge in a conch. The usual gestures of his hands are abhaya – fearlessness, and varada – benevolence. He has been conceived and represented as blue complexioned wearing a yellow antariya – unstitched length of textile, and rich lustrous jewels. His towering gems-studded crown and a garland of fresh Parijata flowers of celestial origin, worn down to ankles, are other exclusive features of his iconography and hence of his identity.

In his cosmic magnification – Vishva-rupa, Vishnu has a different set of iconography. Vishva-rupa is only Vishnu’s transform. Brahma did not have such magnification. Himself being the cosmos Vishva-rupa was irrelevant in Shiva’s context. As the creation sustains and prevails in Vishnu, his form is required to magnify to assimilate in it the vision of the world.


Vishnu was initially a cosmic presence without a manifest form or appearance. Hence, the seers, right from the Vedic days to the days of Puranas, wove around him, on one hand, a form of his own, and on the other, discovered in any being, a man or animal, which they found containing Vishnu-like dimensional width and magnanimity, a transform of Vishnu or his incarnation. Transformation is a shift from one form to the other in the same birth, while incarnation is a form attained in other birth. Ordinarily, transform and incarnation are two different things but in Vaishnava context both are largely identical. Vishnu enters into another form but without subjecting himself to birth and death. In some of the beings, such as the mythical Matsya – Great Fish, Kurma – Tortoise, or Varaha – Boar, popularly revered as his incarnations, Vishnu had merely an elemental presence. They were only his ‘anshavataras’ – part-incarnations, each performing one divine act having cosmic magnitude. Narsimha and Vamana, his two other incarnations, were perhaps more decisively only his transforms. Their related myths in the Shatpatha Brahman represent just their emergence, neither their birth nor parentage. Mysticism enshrouded the events of births also of his other incarnations, Parasurama, Rama, Krishna, Balarama, or Buddha. They had parents, babyhood, growth, manhood and a full life and a chain of events but their related myths, ambiguous as they are at least in regard to the circumstances of their births, incline to suggest that their emergence was hardly the outcome of a biological process.

Though the multiplicity of his incarnated forms, ranging from animals to man, suggestive of Vishnu’s elemental presence in all things, has undertones of Rig-Vedic mysticism, the proper incarnation cult has its beginning in Brahmans. At least three forms, Vamana who redeemed the world from the demon Bali, Matsya, the great fish that rescued Manu from high tides of the Great Deluge, and Varaha, boar, that dragged back the earth from deep waters and rescued her, occur in these later Vedic texts.

The Mahabharata identifies Vishnu as Krishna when he shows his cosmic form to Arjuna. However, it is in Puranas that the theory of incarnations fully explodes. Each of Vishnu-related Puranas comes out with its own list of his incarnations, totaling in thousands. However, these are two sets that have greater unanimity. According to one tradition the number of his incarnations is twenty-four, while under another, it is ten. His Dasavatara – ten incarnations, comprise the theme of Indian art – sculptures, at least since Gupta period in fifth-sixth century. These ten incarnations are Matsya, Kurma, Varah, Narsimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Balarama and Kalki.

The Vishnu Purana and some other texts acclaim Buddha, not Balarama, as his ninth incarnation. According to many texts, Kalki, the tenth incarnation, has to incarnate in Kaliyuga, the present eon. Around the end of this eon righteousness would turn into unrighteousness, light, into darkness, good, into evil, virtues, into vices, believers, into profanes, community of man, into thieves and evil doers, and the faith in God would be lost. Then Kalki would emerge riding the horse Devadatta – one given by gods, and with this the Kaliyuga would end.

However as Venkateshvara, Vishnu has at least one such form which is not his incarnation.

Vishnu’s south Indian devotees consider Venkateshvara as Vishnu’s proto-form. Even if this position is unacceptable, Venkateshvara, a manifestation of Vishnu, might be termed as his transform or re-emergence. Vishnu is believed to have abandoned Baikuntha and migrated to Tirumala, a hill-range in south India having serpent Shesh-like form and hence designated as Sheshachala.

The related myth is variously narrated. However, the one in the Padma Purana is better known. As it has it, gods once fell into a dispute for settling which they deputed sage Bhragu. For seeking their guidance Bhragu went to Great Trio. Shiva, engaged in amorous act with Parvati, did not pay attention to him. Brahma behaved almost rudely, but Bhragu lost his temper when he found Vishnu asleep. The angry sage hit him on his chest with his leg, which left on it the impression of his foot that as Shrivatsa adds another element in his iconography. Vishnu, instead of punishing the sage, only apologised for being asleep. Lakshmi who was lying on his side felt insulted and in fury abandoned Vishnu and his Baikuntha. Unable to bear separation Vishnu also left Baikuntha and migrated to Tirumala hill on the earth. After eons of repentance and yearning one day Vishnu realised that like a lotus Lakshmi was sprouting within him and thus the two were re-united. Tirumala is thus Vishnu’s only abode where he permanently settled after he had abandoned Baikuntha, his heavenly abode. His presence here is considered thus full and absolute.


Except that he is one who spans the earth, known and unknown spaces in three steps, the Rig-Veda does not recount any of his exploits. With his transformation as the god of yajna his role widens in later Vedic texts. Now also as Vamana, Matsya and Varaha he indulges in more personalised kind of acts. In Puranas his form is almost concretised and so his exploits against demons, Hayagriva, Madhu and Kaitabha, Andhaka, Vritrasura, Nemi, Sumali, Malyavan among others. He fights against mighty demons Madhu and Kaitabha for ages before he is able to kill them.

The myth of annihilation of Madhu and Kaitabha appeared first in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata. Later, with a few variations, it appeared in the Devi Bhagavata Purana. As goes the myth, after the Great Deluge Mahavishnu lay asleep on the water’s surface. Long after from his navel grew a lotus, out of which subsequently emerged Brahma. Staying in the lotus he engaged himself in meditation and in reciting Vedas. Meanwhile some ear-wax emitted from the ears of Mahavishnu and from it were born two demons, named Madhu and Kaitabha. According to the Mahabharata, Madhu and Kaitabha were born from two drops of water that Mahavishnu had created in the lotus. One of the two drops was sweet like Madhu -honey, and hence, Madhu, the name of the demon born of it. He stood for Tamas – darkness, one of the three attributes of cosmos. The other drop was hard. From this drop was born Kaitabha representing Rajas – activity.

Born and grown up in water Madhu and Kaitabha had exceptional power to walk on water’s surface and under it, which had made them arrogant and proud. They wondered how this big flood came into being. One day, Devi appeared and taught them the ‘Vagbija mantra’ – hymn of the origin of logos. Reciting the hymn they performed Devi’s worship for a thousand years. Appeased by their worship Devi appeared and told them to ask whatever they desired. They wished that they should die in the manner they chose. The wish was granted. Their arrogance now multiplied. One day, they stole Brahma’s Vedas and with them hid in the nether world. Brahma went after them but tortured and frightened by them came back. He went to Mahavishnu and sought his help in restoring Vedas. Mahavishnu went to Madhu and Kaitabha but they refused to return the scriptures. Mahavishnu raised arms against them but it yielded no result. Under a strategy, when one fought with him the other rested and thus they tired Mahavishnu who was battling non-stopped. It continued for a thousand years. Finally, Devi appeared and revealed that they would not be killed unless they themselves disclosed the manner by which they could be killed. Mahavishnu feigned to give up arms and lauded the demons for their great valour. He told that he would grant them anything they wished. As anticipated, the demons laughed and said that they were superior to him and hence he should ask them whatever he wanted from them. Mahavishnu instantly said that he wished to kill them and asked them to grant this wish. With no other option left, they granted his wish but with the condition that he could kill them but not inside the water. Mahavishnu instantly expanded his thighs so far that like earth they reached above water. The demons expanded their bodies many more times leaving waters far below. Vishnu expanded his thighs further, caught hold of the demons, held them on his thighs and cut their throats with his disc.

Mahavishnu likewise eliminated Hayagriva, the son of Kashyapaprajapati by his demon wife Denu, for torturing good people and destroying their yajnas, Anthaka, the notorious minister of the demon king Mahisha, Vratasura, the son of Prajapati Twasta born of his wrath, Sumali, the son of Patalaravana, Malyavan, the son of demon Sukesha and brother of Mali and Sumali, Nemi, the head of the demons of Nemi clan, and Rahu, the notorious planet. Rahu was cut into two parts by Mahavishnu with his disc. As the related myth has it, the incessantly warring gods and demons once reached an accord under which they agreed to churn ocean and discover nectar that the ocean contained. After the nectar was found in the course of churning the demons rushed to snatch it. Fearing that the world would be destroyed if it fell into the hands of demons, gods were reluctant to let it pass into their hands. And hence, a fearful battle ensued for its custody. When arms did not yield result, Vishnu resorted to other options. He transformed himself into Mohini, the temptress. All demons rushed to obtain her. Meanwhile gods disappeared with the pot of nectar, and just after them, Mohini. They reached Baikuntha and to bar entry of any demon put the Sun and the Moon on guard. However, Rahu in disguise succeeded in entering. But, on being detected by Moon Mahavishnu discharged on him his disc and cut him into two pieces.

This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet.


A possible reason Vishnu came to be recognised as the most powerful deity in the Hindu cosmos is that His existence is perceived in reality as a cosmic concept located at the very heart of the geocentric universe. Thus His role became enhanced through millenia of observation that He was the central pivot of All celestial movement, around whom All movement in the Universe happened in eternal cycles. Vishnu is perceived to be the invisible, unmoved mover of All that Is.

Unmoved because He is anchored by the Pole Star through His foot to the axis of the Divine Milk Churn that is the leg He pivots on ( mirrored in the Sufi mystics dance). Vishnu’s movement is the abstract vectorial sum of the Precession of the Equinoxes. Leaning because He is inclined at the angle of the ecliptic to the Sun ( thus the Pole star changes with each age of the Zodiac), His other leg thrust up at an angle in the face of the demi-gods, pointing to the Avatar that rules the Age of the Zodiacal cycle, while describing the eternal cyclic path of the ecliptic the planets must follow and the vernal equinox.

The serpent protecting Him with ten heads symbolises the serpentine paths of the demi-gods ( planets, sun & moon ) as they follow the eternal cycles created by His cosmic dance. (In older depictions the serpent has only 7 or 5 heads. eg., the Buddha Naga). His 3 steps are the birth, life and death of All Life brought into existence through His eternal Heavenly cycles. Death being the step in time no man can traverse within a given lifetime.

Vishnu has no face because He is the invisible force behind the visible, behind even the greatest Gods such as Usha. His power, size and especially His invisibility are mirrored in the West by the faceless Judaic ‘God of the Shadows’, who holds mankinds destiny in His palm and also has one foot on earth. Vishnu’s dance causes All to rotate with Him, churning the Cosmic Ocean, the Earth and the Celestial Heavens. He is the force that turns the Heavenly Milk Churn churning out the Milky Way. His All powerful rhythm conquers even the errant heavenly bodies of comets and asteroids. He presides over the Universe as Shaiva in the Shaiva-Lingam where He is worshipped as the phallic source of the Milk of Life that leaves the lip of the Lingam to give birth to the Milky Way. The Lingam’s Lip symbolises the path to the Heavens that opens at each Vernal Equinox. The Vernal Equinox ( aka Easter ) is universally revered with annual divine fertility rites as the time that the souls of the departed can escape the realm of the earth ( Buddhist Samsara ) to ascend to and be united with their god(s) in the Heavens.

Shaiva is depicted spinning on one leg, similarly to Vishnu in the Dance of Maiya. Krisna and Seth, the gods of light and darkness, are depicted hauling on the divine 7 headed serpent that entwines the Heavenly Milk Churn, causing it to rotate and churn out the Milky Way in the Heavens. Are they alternate depictions of Shaiva and Vishnu’s role in Hindu cosmology? This model makes it seem likely. The demarcation between Vishnu the ‘invisible spin axis and unmoved mover of All that Is’ and Shaiva ‘the mysterious serpentine movement of the planets that is the Cycle of the Zodiac’ appears to reside between Vishnu’s invisibility and Shaiva’s phenomenality.

– Noel Ingham
12th Jul 2009